The current state of American politics must make us question whether any of our leaders in the Beltway can be described as “grown-ups”, i.e., fully mature and sane individuals. Between the endless war crimes, corporate corruption, lobbyists who bribe congressmen and write legislation, and the ineptitude of federal entities who are supposed to protect our health such as the FDA, EPA, and CDC, it would appear that leaders in all three branches of government, as well as the leaders of the corporate world, are either insane, suffer from various psychological disorders, as well as suffering from a type of collective hallucination, the common denominator being an utter lack of empathy for others humans, or respect for the Earth.
Further, we must at least question whether collectively, we the citizenry, are as susceptible to mass delusions as our psychopathic leaders are. Our society can be effectively generalized as forming what Paulo Freire calls a culture of silence, many of whom see no problems with exploiting and despoiling other countries, looting wealth, and killing millions; and many more that are simply afraid to speak out against the indignity of the US empire, in fear of socio-cultural reprisals. This culture of silence, which we are taught at a young age, indoctrinates and effectively eliminates the ability of people to form critiques of our rotten political and economic systems. This is who Richard Nixon was really referring to, when he spoke of the “Silent Majority”: citizens too naïve, dumb, childlike, and afraid to confront the injustices inherent to our system were exactly who Tricky Dick was appealing to.
While many of us pretend that something as silly as “American exceptionalism” exists, and fall victim to the myth of rugged individualism that permeates all aspects of civic life and economics, the sad truth is that we’ve become a nation of petulant children. While we fantasize about Jeffersonian notions of small businesses and republicanism guiding our way of life, transnational conglomerates control our agricultural output(killing us slowly with GMOs and pesticides) and our media landscape (brainwashing us with neoliberalism and propaganda).
Marx and Engels tuned us into the ideological war imposed by capitalism, which distorts and confuses workers’ belief systems, alienates workers from themselves and their work, and attempts by subterfuge to shift the blame of ruthless exploitation away from the ruling class. This was called false consciousness, and later, Sartre used the term mauvaise foi (“bad faith”). Gramsci defined the ideological control of capitalists over the socioeconomic system as cultural hegemony. Many readers are intimately familiar with these ideas. So why does this critique of the left from John Steinbeck still ring so true:
“I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.”
As Paul Goodman explained so lucidly, we’ve all been Growing Up Absurdfor generations, trapping many in the chrysalis of adolescence for their entire lives. As he pointed out:
“The accumulation of the missed and compromised revolutions of modern times, with their consequent ambiguities and social imbalances, has fallen, and must fall, most heavily on the young, making it hard to grow up.”
There is no mystery why Goodman entitles his chapter on missed revolutions in the fields of the physical environment, the socioeconomic model, political and constitutional reform, morality, and reforms dealing with children and youth, “The Missing Community”. For youth today, just as in his day, have few responsible role models, a repressive and prison-like atmosphere in schools, with consumerism and technology determining every aspect of a child’s search for joy and wonder, and now, the artificial edifices of social media and “augmented reality” is replacing genuine interaction. Indoctrinated to fit into a system of war, corporate monopolies, vapid pop culture, and not encouraged to think critical about their country or world cultures, children become jaded as soon as they realize that the notions of freedom, equality, and sharing that their parents and teachers taught them were based on lies. We must reverse this tide, lest we forget Walter Benjamin’s saying that:
“Behind every fascism, there is a failed revolution.”
Studies have shown that about 7-8% of the general populationsuffers from PTSD at some point in their life. This is almost certainly a severe underestimate. Most cases of severe trauma, abuse, and PTSD go unreported and untreated, leading to years, decades, or lifetimes of suffering. Women are twice as likely to experience PTSD as men, due to rape, sexual and/or domestic abuse, and harassment.
These conditions of extreme trauma and stress, rooted in the coercive, exploitative aspects of schools, corporations, jails, and organized religions, permeate every aspect of society, and reinforce our deepest ideological confusions: the line between personal property and coercive private property is purposely blurred by the bourgeoisie, fulfillment is replaced by “fun”, civic duty is replaced by retreating into the shell of private life, and diplomacy is usurped by war. Brought up in such a totality of fear and violence, it is no surprise that many never progress psychically beyond the stage of the child, or to seek out fulfillment instead of base entertainment.
The wit of the novelist Trevanian is instructive when addressing the Western symptoms of ennui and anomie:
“It’s not Americans I find annoying, its Americanism: a social disease of the post-industrial world that must inevitably infect each of the mercantile nations in turn, and is called ‘American’ only because your nation is the most advanced case of the malady, much as one speaks of Spanish flu…Its symptoms are a loss of work ethic, a shrinking of inner resources, and a constant need for external stimulation, followed by spiritual decay and moral narcosis. You can recognize the victim by his constant efforts to get in touch with himself, to believe his spiritual feebleness is an interesting psychological warp, to construe his fleeing from responsibility as evidence that he and his life are uniquely open to new experience. In the latter stages, the sufferer is reduced to seeking that most trivial of activities: fun.” (2)
This is corroborated by Jean Liedloff, whose experiences with the Yequana and Sanema tribes of Venezuela allows her to contrast their indigenous traditions and child-rearing with the failure of civilized parents, and the resulting insipid, infantile behavior of Western adults and general culture:
“Novelty…is so much a part of the present phase in our culture that our natural resistance to change has been distorted…Nothing is ever allowed to be good enough, nothing ever satisfactory. Our underlying discontent is channeled into desire for the latest things…Among the things high on the list are those that save labor…When success as a passive baby has not been experienced, there is a penchant for button-pushing, for labor-saving, as an assurance that everything is being done for, and nothing expected of, the subject…The impulse to work, necessarily a strong one in a healthy continuum, is stunted…Work becomes what it is to most of us: a resented necessity. And the labor-saving gadget gleams with a promise of lost comfort. In the meantime, a solution to the discrepancy between the adult desire to utilize one’s abilities and the infantile desire to be useless is often found in something aptly called recreation.” (3)
The implications are clear: our culture does not allow us to grow up, because to do so would invoke a critical response and a revolution against the forces of tyranny. Recently, Henry Giroux asked:
“Where are the agents of democracy and the public spaces that offer hope in such dark times? What role will progressives play at a time when the very ability of the public’s ability to translate private troubles into broader systemic issues is disappearing? How might politics itself be rethought in order to address the pedagogical and structural conditions that contribute to the growing intensification of violence in all spheres of American society? What role should intellectuals, cultural workers, artists, writers, journalists, and others play as part of a broader struggle to reclaim a democratic imaginary and exercise a collective sense of civic courage?”
First, we must accept the fact that each of us is an agent of democracy, and we must reclaim the public spaces, and smack down the harmful myth regarding “The Tragedy of the Commons”. The answers to Giroux’s plea lie in our ability to raise healthy, strong children who are not seduced by the siren calls of capitalism and patriotic-approved state violence. This should be supplemented by alternative education programs for children and adults, and basic life and practical lessons passed down from parents, grandparents, etc. This doesn’t mean each parent has to teach their kid trigonometry. It means each town has to model itself to promote a viable village atmosphere, and foster a sense of community, with renewable energy, grassroots arts and music, and small to medium scale organic agriculture.
It will mean embracing the truth that industrial civilization is destroying the world, and rather than wallowing in self-pity at having our illusions destroyed, rising up and embracing a culture based on ecology, enlightenment, and virtuous edification of our youth.
1.) Jensen, Derrick. Endgame: The Problem of Civilization, Vol. 1. Seven Stories Press, 2006. p. 69-70.
2.) Trevanian. Shibumi. Three Rivers Press, 1979. p. 306
3.) Liedloff, Jean. The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost. Da Capo Press, 1975. p. 114-115.
William Hawes is a writer specializing in politics and environmental issues. His articles have appeared online at Global Research, Countercurrents, Dissident Voice, The World Financial Review, Gods & Radicals, and Counterpunch. He is author of the ebook Planetary Vision: Essays on Freedom and Empire. You can reach him at email@example.com
This is the third essay in a series on the Death of Liberal Democracy
In the previous essay in this series, we looked at Liberal Democracy’s inherent violence through the State and our intimate identification with that violence. The execution of two Black men in the United States this last week unfortunately provide poignant examples of that violence.
Such things aren’t supposed to happen within Liberal Democracies, and yet they do. Worse, as Liberal Democracies begin to fail, violence against the oppressed only increases, as well as the deep divisions over its justifications.
Because our understanding of violence is always subjective, whether or not the State killing of Black men is ‘justified’ depends on whether or not we identify more with the victims of that violence, or with the State (and its values, and its agents). A Capitalist is more likely to defend the State’s actions than will those whom they exploit, because police don’t exist to keep Capitalists (most of them white) in line.
In such events, the veneer of Liberal Democracy cracks and fall off, showing something much darker—and much more violent—underneath. And like any other disillusionment, we experience the apparent short-circuit of the mythic and the real of Liberal Democracy as a kind of trauma, one our minds scramble furiously to repair.
Religion is a good parallel. When we experience a crisis of faith, particularly related to the Divine, we have two options. The first is to stare deeply into the sudden Abyss which has opened up, the chasm between what we believed was true—what we shaped our lives around—and what we now see as true.
But that’s really hard, so many opt for the second option: dig in our heels, insist that what we thought was true still is and cling harder to the external rituals of that belief until the doubts and questions go away.
They don’t, of course. And that trauma re-asserts itself in bizarre behaviour, and can produce both fanaticism and fundamentalism.
Relationships are another place where this happens. When you discover that the love you shared with another is no longer there–that you or the person(s) you loved no longer feel love for each other–you again have two options. You can begin the really difficult and painful process of unraveling your relationship, staring deeply into the Abyss of sorrow, loneliness, and separation.
Or, you can pretend nothing is wrong, try harder, and hope love comes back.
In each case, both choices are very, very human. No forsaken lover can really be blamed for their denial. No true believer can be faulted for their desire to return to a more innocent belief. And none of us should feel shame that we’ve clung so long to the myths of Liberal Democracy, even as we learn how violent and destructive it is.
Unfortunately, denial causes more harm than acceptance. The lover who ‘won’t let go’ sinks deeper into misery and unhappyness, worsening the tensions in the relationship. They can become controlling and abusive, blaming the other for their refusal to love. The believer who refuses to embrace the new truth misses the beauty of a deeper relationship to the Divine and may attack others for their ‘impiety,’ sometimes resorting to violence
But what about those who cling to the myth of Liberal Democracy? Who, though they’ve seen the very violence at its core, refuse to admit it and instead try to ‘fix it?’
We need to have a talk.
Utopian Socialism & Social Justice
When Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto, they were not the first to criticize Capitalism and the State. They also were not just attacking Capitalism, but a rival ideology which promised more than it could ever deliver: Utopian Socialism.
Utopian Socialists criticized many of the same problems as Communists and Anarchists in the 18th and 19th century. But rather than advocate an overthrow of the State and a seizure of the factories from their owners (‘the means of production’), they thought that Liberal Democratic governments could be reformed through education and enlightenment. With enough time and effort, they reasoned, Capital would become less violent, wealth would become more equitably shared, and class and race divisions would eventually just fade away.
To get to such a point, Utopian Socialists tried to educate the masses on right behaviour. They reasoned that most of the problems of society came from ignorance, and if people only understood how their actions hurt others (including the actions of rulers and Capitalists), humanity would eventually become free and peaceful. In essence, once enough people changed their morals—replacing hate with tolerance, altruism for greed, solidarity for individualism—we would finally become equal.
Marx and Engels disagreed.
The primary argument against Utopian Socialism, from both Anarchists and Communists, was that the State would never relinquish power willingly. More so, the State existed to do the bidding of the Capitalists; without revolt, no amount of incremental change would ever suffice, because Capitalists always exert more power through their wealth.
If Utopian Socialism sounds a little familiar, it should. It never actually went away, but has taken many new names for itself. In the United States, for example, it’s been known as Progressivism. In many European countries, it’s called Democratic Socialism. And in most English-speaking countries in the world now, it’s called Social Justice.
And it’s failed.
The Limits of Social Justice
Like Utopian Socialism, Social Justice attempts to educate the masses on the causes and results of inequality in order to eradicate it. They believe that, once people understand that they are being racist, sexist, homophobic, fat-phobic, trans-phobic, misogynist, privileged, ableist, colonialist, white, classist, xenophobic, nationalist, and elitist, they will eventually stop.
By educating the masses about these things, Social Justice then aims to transform society into something more fair and just. If enough people understand these problems and seek to fix them, they can then transform the institutions (including the State) that benefit from these ills into something that will uphold equality.
There is a problem, of course: for as many people who embrace Social Justice and attempt to adjust their actions, there are more people who answer such complaints with, “no. I’m not.”
More so, those who wish to continue their behavior have all sorts of arguments in their defense. A person who does not want to be around trans people, for instance, may invoke religion (be it Christian Fundamentalism or Dianic Witchcraft), or safety, or the right to choose whom they associate with. An institution that believes same-sex relationships are immoral might likewise invoke ‘religious freedom’ as a defense.
In fact, Social Justice is a double-edged blade. New Right Heathen and polytheist theorists invoke the same arguments used to defend indigenous, First Nations, and other oppressed peoples to defend their own oppressive ideologies. Stephen McNallen and his fellow racists, for instance, insist that their ‘indigenous European culture’ deserves the same protections as others, and thus they should be able to exclude people of non-European descent from their groups.
While this may seem like a mere cynical attempt to hijack Social Justice language, it isn’t. The morality inherent to Social Justice is subjective and not actually part of its framework; people with opposing moral views can easily use the same framework.
There’s a long explanation for this, but here’s the short version: since Social Justice does not directly attack the foundations of inequality (Capitalism and the State), the original goal no longer matters. Once untethered from that goal, it becomes like a religion empty of its gods, or a relationship where love has died.
To understand more how this happened, we need to look more at Social Justice and its relationship to the State and Capital.
Social Justice and the Capitalist State
Neither Utopian Socialism nor Social Justice rely on education as the sole means of affecting social change. Instead, both attempt to increase the rights recognised and granted by the State in order to increase equality and enshrine a more just morality. Protections for disabled people, ethnic, religious, and racial minorities, anti-discrimination laws, hate-crime legislation and social welfare programs are all strategies used to correct inequalities within Liberal Democracy and move towards a more just and equal society.
The problem? This strategy requires a violent and powerful State.
As described in the ‘social contract’ which Hobbes outlines in Leviathan, Liberal Democracies offer rights and protections to their citizens in return for the consent to rule. Those rights are then guaranteed and enforced through State violence, whether through the judicial system or military and police actions.
Unfortunately, using the apparatus of the State (and its violence) to create the sort of equality that the Social Justice framework demands gives more legitimacy to the State. The State then becomes empowered to use its violence (be that direct or indirect) to enact the will of the people in cases of discrimination, punishing individuals and businesses who, for instance, refuse to cater gay weddings, provide accommodations for wheelchair users, or hire Black people.
I use those three examples for a reason, as each involves Capitalism. First, though, let’s be clear:
Each of those scenarios are sites of inequality—no Marxist, Anarchist, or Social Justice advocate would disagree here.
We should also dismantle the Free Market/libertarian argument against such interventions, which asserts government should not interfere with the demands of Capitalism. This argument insists that the Market should decide whether the actions of those businesses are just, rather than the State. For them, The Market serves as a proxy for the divine mandate of the people. They reason that businesses which discriminate against others would fail because of loss of profit, and thus Capitalists would thus be more ‘moral’ out of self-interest.
Besides relying on religious faith in the Market, this argument also ignores the power (including State power) that Capitalists have over those without Capital. Most laws within Liberal Democracy exist to protect property and business, and the police exist to enforce these. That is, the Capitalist already wields State power, and isn’t eager to see this challenged.
Social Justice doesn’t question State power. Instead, when moral arguments regarding tolerance and acceptance fail to correct oppression, Social Justice demands that the State intervene. This State intervention does work, as least for a little while (as in desegregation in the American South, hate-crime laws in most Liberal Democracies, etc.). Unfortunately, by demanding these guarantees of rights (and the punishment of those who violate them), Social Justice empowers the State to enact more violence.
Thus, the police who arrest perpetrators of hate crimes are also police who kill Black men during traffic stops, the same courts which try cases of discrimination also prosecute homeless people for vagrancy. The State becomes more powerful through our reliance on it, and we find ourselves in a tug-of-war over control of State violence. We can’t win, because the State cannot exist without the Capitalists who fund it. As Audre Lorde pointed out:
…the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.
Capital has its own logic, one that transcends and transforms the values of the individual Capitalist. Capital’s primary demand is profit, and in order to profit, the Capitalist must exploit others. Capitalists must employ others to work for them at wages lower than the amount they sell the results of that labor for. In order to maintain this relationship of economic exploitation, there must also be hierarchy, with the owner(s) at the top and the workers at the bottom.
Hierarchy and exploitation spread throughout all other relations within Capitalist societies. Your boss is never ‘your equal,’ because your boss will always have more Authority (and money!) than you. Further, the boss must be able to maintain inequality in order to profit. As a result, even the most anti-racist and pro-Social Justice Capitalist can find themselves employing State violence to protect their Capital, calling the police when a homeless, Black, or other poor person steals from them.
Expand this use of State violence from the individual small Capitalist to an entire society, and you can see how the interests of Capital oppose the goals of equality espoused by Social Justice.
But without attacking Capital, Social Justice can only rely on the same State as the Capitalist in order to repair the damage Capitalism causes. Welfare, affirmative action, housing assistance, education grants—all these exist to lessen the damage of Capitalism, but none of them ever succeed in create equality precisely because Capitalism always requires inequality to function.
Also, everything the State does (including welfare, etc.) is paid for by taxation. The only way for the State to derive enough taxes to fund these programs is to have a thriving economy, with Capitalists reaping enough profits to bear the burden of taxation. Thus, the State is used both to fix the problems caused by Capitalism while also encouraging more Capitalism, with one hand repairing only some of the damage that it causes with the other hand.
Unfortunately, Social Justice enables this process.
Social Justice has also relied on the support of Capitalists in order to fight inequality. While recognition of gay partnerships and increased access for disabled people by large corporations is certainly a good thing, the ‘victories’ of such support then replace the criticism of the corporations themselves and enable those Capitalists to exploit others without question. Worst of all, it then creates a new dynamic of identity politics which both State and Capital are very good at exploiting.
Identity Politics and the Exploitation of the World
The United States Military recently joined the rest of the ‘civilized world’ (that is, Liberal Democracies) by allowing homosexuals to ‘serve’ openly and women to ‘serve’ in combat. It was hailed as a victory for Social Justice and equality by many gays and Feminists, seen as progress and the victory of tolerance over inequality.
An Arab woman who loses her children and husband to the bullets of an American lesbian soldier probably won’t see this as a victory of equality.
If this sounds harsh, good. We must be harsh in order to cut through the manipulation of our identities by the State.
During the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, many gay men and feminists called for support of these military actions on behalf of the gays and women in those countries, employing a narrative of Liberal Democracy versus the uncivilized (i.e.; Muslim) world. That same narrative repeats today—calls for stricter policies against immigrants to protect gays and women (especially after the Orlando massacre), relentlessly recycled news stories on the slaughter of gays by Daesh, calls by polytheists for the US military to send more troops to the Iraq to support Yezidis and stop the destruction of ancient sacred sites.
In all those cases, identity becomes a weapon of the Liberal Democratic State to gain consent for more violence, more conquest, more slaughter.
By refusing to attack the State and Capital directly and instead focusing on incremental change, Social Justice fails to challenge the global inequality of Liberal Democracy. As a result, we find ourselves as women fighting for equal pay from corporations which employ near-slave labor of other women, gays celebrating the ‘right’ to become soldiers in imperialist wars and killing other gays, and many other contradictory positions which Liberal Democracy is happy to exploit.
This isn’t to say that multiple inequalities cannot be fought at once. But because Social Justice doesn’t challenge Capital and relies on the State to achieve its goals, it helps the State turn our identity against us and make us complicit in the very exploitation it enacts.
Was this the intention of Social Justice? No. But it is its fatal flaw, and why it cannot liberate any of us.
And for each new right and protection gained by a minority in a Liberal Democracy, we become hostages to the State.
Moralism versus Revolution
The goals of Social Justice are good goals, but they cannot be accomplished without dismantling Liberal Democracy. And therein’s the problem, because if Liberal Democracy falls, the rights, protections, guarantees, and equality gained through Social Justice are directly threatened.
Thus, we cannot challenge its violent core because we rely on that State for our protection, and we fear what may come after.
It’s for this reason so many people in the U.K are terrified of what will come after Brexit, and they should be. It’s for this reason so many people in the United States are terrified of how much more violence there will be against Blacks and other minorities if the State is led by the next likely president.
And in the United States as I write, more Black men have been killed by agents of the State. Protests are arising everywhere, but some of the narrative has finally begun to shift away from the Social Justice framework.
This is a very good sign.
For decades, the primary tactic to address police slaughter of Black people has been to demand better training and education of police, as well as arrest and conviction of the police officers. The hope has been that police needed only more morality and more checks on their power in order not to be so violent.
Such a strategy ignores the role of police as agents of State violence, aiming instead to correct an apparent malfunction of an otherwise necessary machine This strategy has failed, and not because the millions of people who have protested against these deaths and demanded accountability didn’t try.
The system isn’t malfunctioning at all—it’s working precisely as it is supposed to.
Black people are criminalized in the United States not because Americans haven’t adopted the right morality, but because police exist to enforce the will of the State and the Capitalists who support it. The system oppresses Black people because it needs to.
If Black people were ever truly granted full equality under Liberal Democracy, if Racism were ever to fade away, Capitalism would go into crisis. Racial difference keeps the poor fighting each other rather than fighting the wealthy; as long as Blacks are considered dangerous and less worthy of life than whites, the white poor and working class will stay on the side of the white Capitalists and white State.
The same is true for immigrants, particularly in Europe. If European-born workers and immigrant workers were ever to unite, no amount of State violence could ever protect the Capitalist.
Because Social Justice fights only the symptoms of Capitalism, because it attempts to change society through morality and State power, it plays perfectly into the hands of Liberal Democracy. White heterosexual cis-males are definitely privileged by most Liberal Democracies; unfortunately, by attacking their privilege we cannot actually eradicate the source. Privilege doesn’t derive from those, it derives from the State, and the State is more than eager to grant out piecemeal rights and privileges in return for our embrace of the Liberal Democratic State.
As in South Africa under Apartheid, Liberal Democracies are founded upon unequal relations. Whites there enjoyed immense benefits and wealth at the expense of the majority Black population, and even those who believed Apartheid was immoral still feared what might come after. Would the oppressed Blacks rise up and slaughter all the whites? Would the Blacks in turn do the exact same things to whites as was done to them?
Because of the Truth&Reconciliation movement, the feared massacre didn’t happen. But South Africa was not a massive imperial power, exploiting millions outside of its borders, extracting their wealth and bombing their villages to pieces. The same cannot be said of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, or any of the other large Liberal Democracies. If the oppressed people within those countries don’t rise up, there are many more outside waiting to demand justice, too.
In each of these countries, the promise of an eventual equal society has proven false. Equality is impossible under Capitalism, and even as we in those countries try to gain more rights, we help Liberal Democracy destroy the lives of others.
Besides, decades and centuries of struggle to gain equality for minorities are now becoming reversed, and the State is increasing its violence: both abroad with its endless wars in oil-rich nations and within its borders against Blacks and immigrants, dissidents and the poor.
Liberal Democracy is dying, and Social Justice can’t fix it.
Moving On From Social Justice
For most who cling to the Social Justice framework, I’m not really telling you anything new.
We already knew this. We’ve known this for awhile, but have been in denial. Like noticing that love no longer leaps between ourselves and a partner, we’ve not quite wanted to admit it. Like when we have a crisis of faith, we haven’t been quite certain what to do next.
It’s okay. We’re human.
But it’s time to move on. We need to look into that Abyss waiting for us. Just like clinging too long to a lover who no longer loves us, just like holding too tightly to the forms of a religion long after it becomes false, insisting that Liberal Democracy can be reformed will only cause more damage, more hurt, more sorrow.
Not moving on from the promise of Social Justice is already making us awful. Just like the religious person who tries to rekindle their lost faith by blaming infidels, we can find ourselves crippled by blaming other people’s privilege for our inability to act. And just as the lover in denial may begin to hate the person they once loved, we can find ourselves hating the very people who want to build an equal society with us.
And in both cases, the greatest loss is our own magic, our own power. The faith we once had can be had again, but this time not built on illusion and priests who knew no more about the divine than we do. The love which drove us to want to change the world will not die, but we will find a new way of loving that can last.
We can do this, and we must do it soon. We’re not the only ones noticing Liberal Democracy is dying.
And they’re more prepared than we are.
Next: The Resurgence of the Fascist Right
Rhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s currently trekking about Europe for the next three months. His most recent book is A Kindness of Ravens, and you can follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.
[This essay contains a very frank discussion about suicide, mental illness, and child abuse. It was originally posted at PAGANARCH on September 23, 2015]
I don’t want to write about this. My whole soul screams against it, like when my quads scream against riding on a hard-gear up a Seattle hill, or my arms groan agonised protest against another set of bicep curls.
I don’t want to write about this, like when I don’t want to meet new people, don’t want to get out of bed some mornings. Like when my heart refuses to let itself be loved by someone unfamiliar to it, or my mind aches upon reading something more complicated than it prefers to handle.
I don’t want to write about this, but I will.
I remember staring at the pavement below, crying. My hands were slippery with blood, the palms pierced with bits of glass which took a long time to remove later.
It was chill. I was shaking, drunk. I was 20, too young to drink, but had drank half a bottle of whiskey. I still can’t even handle more than a shot of the stuff; two beers and I’m sloshed…I have trouble believing I’d drank so much of that shit, but I had.
It was the ‘thing’ to do, I guess. I had someone else buy it for me. I’d never had the stuff before–I’d only three or four times even had alcohol, and I hated it.
Also, I didn’t smoke yet, but had gotten that same friend to buy me a pack of cigarettes. I smoked half of them.
Something was in me, I guess. Some idea that’s never fully left, which is also a process that has never fully ended, and a presence never exorcised. There’s little difference between the three; a god’s an idea, and a process, and a presence. Some insist only the first, some allow the second, almost no-one but polytheists will admit to the third.
But…this wasn’t a god. None would give such a thing worship, except perhaps the most foulest of humans, and even then they’d be consumed by its hunger long before it had a chance to spread its disgusting gospel.
What it was, I still don’t know, but I see it sometimes, right at the moment I least want to see it, right at the moment I’ve taken off every piece of armor I’ve donned my entire life to protect myself from it.
I’d punched through a window with my fists. Windows don’t shatter like you’d think they do when you punch through them. You have to punch a few times, especially if you’re intending then to crawl through to a short ledge.
I sat there in the glass, picking up shards, slicing repeatedly into my skin, the physical acts of a ritual that felt pre-scripted, written before men ever walked the earth.
What went through my head, I don’t remember. I couldn’t breathe; something was pressing there, crushing my lungs, pulling the air from my body. Like a ‘panic attack,’ or hyperventilation, except the feeling (and here’s where things get crazy) was from without as well as within.
The ‘trigger’ was a scenario of abandonment, but neither the scenario nor the trigger are quite as relevant as you think. We mythologise the human psyche like we mythologise our infections, our conditions, and our failures, all dark, injurious laments rather than epic strength and heroism. ‘Abandonment issues’ one might say, dismissively, or as a shorthand for a slightly deeper ‘complex.’
But I, being the one who survived it, may call it what I like, name it as I saw it. I call it a haunting.
When I was eight, growing up in Appalachia, I had a strange series of dreams and waking visions
I woke up in the middle of the night with my nose touching the ceiling; turned around to see my body laying on my bed and panicked, finding myself back asleep.
I remember sitting in a bath asking my cognitively-disabled (and later schizophrenic) mother what happened to all my siblings she drowned in the bathtub. Except it wasn’t her who had drowned them, but another mother, and there’d been 5 or 6 of them, and I’m sure it didn’t help my mother to hear that from her child.
And then a long series of dreams after that where a man in a spaceship who actually lived in a monk’s cell and wore robes had me read strange writing in a book so he could ‘return to the stars.’
A few years later is when my father started beating me. I remember it deeply; he’d whip me with his leather belt repeatedly, and then make up horrific rituals for it. He’d make me go fetch his belt. One time he made me take his belt off of him before beating me.
The beatings were so bad I began to go into convulsions at random times, crying that I wanted to ‘go home.’ And both my parents would assure me I was home, but I knew better, because there was the woman who’d come to me as I slept and would hold me, a large Black woman, much bigger than anyone I’d ever seen. She’d hold me really close and assure me that it was going to be okay later and I shouldn’t worry, but I remember she’d cry when she held me.
I’m crying right now.
There was this other time when I was so terrified I thought I wouldn’t survive and this guy came to me. He was with me, but a later me, and we were in Paris, and he told me that I’d be in Paris later (I didn’t even know where Paris was at the time) so I should “hang on, okay?”
I did. Also, after my parents took me to counseling (probably state-mandated, I don’t know), the beatings stopped. I remember asking my father in the car later what the counselor said, and he got really angry and said “she tol’ me I cain’t beat you wit’ the belt.” And I remember his anger about this, but at least he’d stopped, acting somehow shocked that such a thing could affect a kid.
I still don’t want to write this, you know.
I’m sitting on that roof, on all that broken glass many stories up from the pavement. I’m terrified as I slice open the skin of my wrists. It takes a lot to get at a vein, you know, at least when you’re drunk out of your mind and can’t see for the tears and the blood in your eyes from where you’d cut your forehead pushing your body through that broken window.
I wanted it all to end, because I’d seen it again, that thing, that darkness, that haunting. Something that wants us gone, something that wants us destroyed.
It’s the same thing you see on the streets, hanging around the piss-soaked homeless woman with necrotic skin infections. It’s what you see in the after-image of the meth-addict scratching his face off.
It’s what you see in the oil slick on a forest stream and the trash dumped off the side of a hill, but it’s not quite the same with that–perhaps different trenches in the same no-man’s land, facing each other, two armies in an epic war.
I escaped much of that war in those hills.I was the only boy I knew who didn’t get molested. Cousins, friends, neighbor boys all had stories, or acted really strange and didn’t want to be around certain men any longer. The one that haunts me the most is the kid from school I brought to sunday school as part of an attendance drive. I won a trip to a chain restaurant in town for bringing the most friends; but one of the kids I brought never spoke to me again after my sunday school teacher pulled off my friend’s pants to ‘check his underwear’ in front of a room full of broken-toothed, mostly shoeless kids.
Jesus loves you, by the way.
Me? Somehow unscathed. I’m pretty sure the man with the book from the stars had a lot to do with that, though, probably the same way I escaped brain cancer from the leaking nuclear power plant a few miles from our home, asthma or worse from burning coal in a wood-burning stove in a small house one long winter, and the same way I survived that autumnal suicide attempt a decade later, or avoided being driven off a bridge by my mother a few years later.
If you’ve been reading me for awhile, you know my mother’s schizophrenic, you know I raised my sisters mostly alone for much of my adolescence while working and going (sorta) to high school.
That shit kinda fucks you up in some strange ways. Mothers are our archetype for ‘goddess’ usually, which is all fine and good for those who had mothers who weren’t trying to kill their kids because demons were telling them to, or who gave entire paltry paychecks over to a megachurch to help them build a new building, or grabbed an intercom phone in a grocery store, hit the button, and told the assembled shoppers in her perpetual young-girl voice:
“Everybody accept Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior because I have a bomb and am going to kill you all.”
She was always particularly intent on doing the right thing, that woman. And as horrifying as that was at the time, it’s also kinda funny.
I tell you I don’t want to write this shit?
This stuff haunts you, because you see someone who’s supposed to be your sole guardian against the world disintegrate before your eyes, you hear your little sisters cry in fear about how ‘mom’s talking to herself again’ and then, worst-of-fucking-all, you find yourself pretty certain you’re becoming like her when the darkness claws at your chest on a ledge as you’re bleeding from both wrists.
Or later, too, when you can’t get out of bed because your whole soul feels drained.
Or later, when you try to explain something you saw or think to someone you love and admire, someone you want to be loved and admired by, and they give you a blank stare like you just told them you saw a god or something.
And, of course, you’ve said that, too.
When I started writing on-line a little over two years ago, I’d found an initially supportive person who ran a forum and wrote really well. She was nice, I really liked her stuff, I thought we’d be friends. And then when I started talking about seeing gods, I got a really concerned message about how I was encouraging people suffering from mental-illness not to seek treatment.
I’ve actually heard this a few other times, too. It’s strange to hear that, having woken up in a white padded room on a hard bench with both of my wrists wrapped in so much gauze I thought my fingers had been amputated. Also, it sucks to wake up restrained, by the way, almost as much as it sucks to be beaten up by a friend with a broom, or by cops when they finally arrived.
Nah, seriously. Go get treatment if you need it. There’s shit that wants us gone.
What wants us gone? I…I don’t really know.
I’ve seen the Burnt Ones. They’re really terrifying, their skin crackling like thin layers of ash off charred wood, or flakes of blue-black coal. Not sure what they’re on about, really, except they show up and warn you not to do something that’s about to change your life, because you might not survive it.
What they don’t tell you, of course, is that we survive everything until we don’t. And that’s just death, and that’s hardly a rare condition for humanity anyway.
But really, the things you see in vision are benevolent compared to what you see with your eyes–if you look, anyway. Cops killing Black men, poisoned rivers, countries bombed to bits while people watch the aftermath on television while sitting down to dinner. No dark abyssal creature, no haunting being compares to a woman tripping a fleeing Syrian refugee to help the border police catch him, a well-known Atheist arguing it was cool to arrest a Muslim boy who brought a clock to school, or the nightmare of watching everyone around you stare at a little phone in their hand while there’s a rainbow in the sky above you.
I’ll take tea with an Archon or the restless dead any day over those people.
I told you I didn’t want to write about this, but I knew how this would go. I knew I’d cry about half-way through writing this, and somewhere about word 1200, I’d go make tea, stare at the moon outside, come back to these words and remember why I write this stuff.
I write this stuff against what wants us gone, weaving the only magic I have full faith in against that darkness others call ‘light’ and ‘civilization.’
I write this stuff to exorcise what wants us gone, and to give you tapestries to keep you warm when the soul’s winter comes.
I write this stuff so you don’t think you’re fucking crazy.
Because you’re not.
This shit is.
We’re what makes this world bearable.
Two years ago, I’d just come down from an ancient druid mountain in France called Menez Hom. and I guess 18 years ago, I was about to jump off a building.
The plan was simple, I guess. I’d get so drunk I couldn’t feel any pain. I’d slash open the veins in both of my wrists. And then I’d throw myself off the roof. The combination of all of it would certainly work–if one didn’t kill me, the other thing would, and I’d no longer have to worry about what wants us gone.
I’d also no longer have to worry about being thought ‘crazy’ again.
My mother’s schizophrenia scared me, because it wasn’t just babbling incoherence. She’d predict stuff that was about to happen. She’d read people’s thoughts. She’d have visions and shit.
My own depression, my own ‘difference,’ terrified me, too. I remember when people found out I was gay and mostly fled from me. Or when I’d gotten suicidal at Christian college, got on meds, and then had the fact that I was taking anti-depressants used against me when I applied for an editor position with the college newspaper. “How can we know your job performance won’t be affected?” they’d asked, and, well…
Fuck job performance.
Fuck being the same.
And fuck being terrified of what you see, and especially fuck apologizing for not being like everyone else.
They say trauma causes delusion. “They” are right. And also very wrong.
Trauma, if anything, causes you to see differently. It’s traumatic to watch someone get shot by a cop, or die of a condition they wouldn’t die from it they weren’t poor. It’s traumatic to watch a woman trip a Syrian refugee, it’s traumatic to see a god. It all makes you see things differently. And what you do with that difference determines whether you survive, whether you fight your government or become addicted to drugs or end up bleeding to death after jumping from a roof.
I see stuff differently, and that’s why you read me, actually. Sometimes I see the way you do. Sometimes I show you a way of seeing differently. Sometimes I just write pretty stuff, but this is hardly pretty.
Just as I was about to jump that day, 18 years ago, my friend showed up. I’m not sure why. Probably the friend who’d bought me the whiskey and cigarettes thought it was a bit bizarre and told him. Probably I’d said some stuff that gave them clues–I always think I’m more cryptic and closed-off than those who love me find me to be. I’m only ever fooling myself, anyway.
He shows up. Pulls me back through the window. I remember shouting ‘let me die’ or some ridiculous futile protest. It was all pretty futile by that point–I already knew I’d end up in Paris some day, and I hadn’t been to Paris yet. Trying to pull the pages out of a book to get it to end earlier doesn’t work, not when the man-from-the-stars made you read that book when you were eight years old, or when the Black goddess told me it was gonna be okay and I’d see her again.
Beats the fuck out of me, he does. He and his brother. And then the cops come. They hurt pretty bad, by the way–don’t fight them without friends, and not in one of those really rare moments they’re actually trying to keep you alive.
And now I’m writing all this stuff to you, regardless of whether I wanted to or not. Like working out, or probably giving birth to a child, the pain’s worth it afterwards. Who wants a baby stuck inside them forever?
Who really wants us gone?
People who know me personally tell me I’m one of the kindest people they know. It’s one of the few compliments I’ll ever accept from most people, most times, because it’s the only thing I can say I’ve honestly decided to be. Because I’ve seen what wants us gone, what wanted me gone, and someone’s gotta fight that.
And occasionally people will remark on the vividness of my visions, or how it seems incredible I see so many things so frequently. That one, I used to worry about, actually, because it made me wonder if they thought I were crazy, or delusional, or lying. Fear of being thought ‘insane’ is unshakeable, if you’ve had the sort of mother I’ve had.
A skeptic might claim the visions I had as a child or the visions I have now are mental tricks to compensate for the trauma I experienced. There’s no difference in my mind between such a position and those who claim Syrian refugees should be made to go back home, or that Black men shot by police ‘had it coming.’
No. I’m not crazy. I get to decide this, by the way–I’m the one who survived all that. I just look at trauma that others don’t look at, and let it teach me to see differently.
I look at the way everyone’s miserable with Capitalism but tell themselves ‘it’s the only option,’ and I see the trauma there and I learn to see what can be instead.
I look at the way homelessness and addiction and racism and poverty and dead forests aren’t just unfortunate side-effects of the way we’ve set up civilization but the very requirements for the rest of us to have ‘nice things,’ and I learn to see that this is so fucked that I don’t want nice things any longer.
And I look at the way I’ve survived almost every attempt what wants us gone has made to destroy me, and I realize it’s precisely because I see differently that it wants me gone. It’s why it wants difference destroyed, why it wants us all the same, all mindless, obedient, ‘normal’ people, easily controlled, easily done away with.
All the freaks I’ve known, all the fantastic queers, all the mad poets, all feral mystics and the incredible activists and truth-tellers revolutionaries and meaning-makers all know what wants us gone….
…and also know what needs us here.
Rhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s currently trekking about Europe for the next three months. Follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.
A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here is due to ship soon.